Sunday, April 04, 2010

[Health and Fitness, Rambles] A Diet So Easy a Caveman Could Do It

A Diet So Easy a Caveman Could Do It: I ate way too much while on vacation last week. I dread getting on the scale because I fully expect to be up a handful of pounds. For me, that means going hungry: cut down my portions significantly, go to bed with an achingly empty stomach. It is the most effective way.

See, I am of the opinion that anywhere but in the extremes of diet, the source of your calories is not that important. Homo sapiens is remarkably omnivorous. Our bodies have a marked ability to extract usable energy from an astounding variety of foods. Fish and rice in Japan, tortillas and pig flesh in Oxaca, red wine and cheese in the Latin Quarter, yogurt and granola in Haight-Ashbury. Unless you are subsisting on a diet of mainly lard, losing weight for you is going to mean eating fewer calories. Unless you can significantly alter the makeup your diet you will have to eat less of the stuff you eat.

I have given up attempting to make major adjustments in my diet. I am too weak willed for that. So all this equals hunger. Oh I have made small scale changes, replacing some fried foods with veggies and fruits here and there, but I just don't have it in me to go on a wholesale diet. It's simpler for me to embrace hunger. Here is my mantra: I am happy to be hungry. Hunger is not painful, it is a pleasant feeling. Hunger is what it feels like to be thin. Go to sleep hungry you have a reason to get up the next day: breakfast.

But that's just me. For most people, losing weight means dieting. The latest fashionable diet is called eating Paleo or Primal. The notion is that human metabolism evolved over millennia to optimally react to a hunter-gatherer diet. Along came agriculture, then centuries later, processed foods. This made foods that would have been rare treats our primal selves plentiful, but we are slaves to our evolutionary tendencies to want to load up on these things as if they were still rare. So we over-indulge and get fat. Or something like that, I confess I am not fully versed on the philosophy. Nor is there one true paleo-diet theory to rule them all.

The notion that it's healthier to eat like a primitive is really nothing new, as has been pointed out by the Freakonomics folks. Like other diet philosophies (low-fat, South Beach, etc.), it is not proven or documented to be fact, it lives in the realm of plausibility, with a pile of likely-biased anecdotal evidence in its favor and a pile of skeptics pointing out anecdotes are not science. Yes, as usual, you will find me in the skeptics corner.

But. It wouldn't surprise me at all to find that paleo dieting will work for a lot of people. Not because it matches up with our caveman physiology -- that seems a bit speculative (and remember what I said re: omnivores) -- but simply because it cuts down on the sort of foods our culture (Western culture) over emphasizes. In Paleo, you must either drop or cut way down on (among other things) bread, dairy and sugar. This is especially effective for people who eat on the go a lot. Everything you can quickly buy and eat will have bread and cheese in some form, especially bread. Everything you snack on will have sugar; we even treat something like a blueberry muffin as an acceptable breakfast. Once you start to drop or cut down on these things, you cut down on a lot of calories, and you should slowly start to lose weight. Or at least stop gaining.

Another good thing I have seen regarding paleo diets is that the gurus are less psychotic. Mark Sisson is a good one (book: The Primal Blueprint); he doesn't get all OCD about his diet and understands it's all about compromise and moderation, and he doesn't pass up a nice piece of chocolate when the opportunity presents itself. If you are going to try this, I'd recommend starting with his blog.

So I guess my take is that paleo diets are right for the wrong reasons. But who cares as long as it works. Of course, so does hunger. And I'm pretty sure cavemen were familiar with that too.